PARIS — If ever a goal could encapsulate the whole Paris Saint-Germain project of expensive glamour and superstar talent, it could not have been better timed or constructed than Kylian Mbappe’s stoppage-time winner that sealed a potentially decisive 1-0 Champions League round-of-16 first-leg victory against Real Madrid at Parc des Princes on Tuesday night.
A back-heeled assist by Neymar, PSG’s €222 million world-record signing, released Mbappe down the left flank, but the France forward still had everything to do before he could even think of scoring. But Mbappe — who is expected to leave PSG for Madrid as a free agent this summer — is not regarded as one of the world’s greatest talents for nothing, and he showcased just why Real are so determined to take him to the Santiago Bernabeu by darting past both Lucas Vazquez and Eder Militao inside the penalty area before guiding a pinpoint right-foot shot beyond goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and into the far corner of the net.
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Courtois had earlier saved a Lionel Messi penalty by diving low to his left to keep out the former Barcelona forward’s spot kick, but he was given no chance by Mbappe’s precise finish. It is up for debate as to whether Mbappe or Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland is the most exciting young talent in the game right now — it is a debate that might centre on the Spanish capital next season if Madrid president Florentino Perez achieves his ambition of signing both players this summer — but the 23-year-old Parisian issued a reminder of his incredible ability with his goal.
In the blink of an eye, Mbappe showed all of his dazzling qualities to score. It was his positional sense, followed by his dribbling skills and a burst of electric pace that enabled him to beat Courtois with his nerveless finishing.
PSG are still attempting to persuade Mbappe to sign a new contract and, in turn, reject Real’s advances, but it appears to be a forlorn hope, with the player doing nothing to hide his desire to move to LaLiga after five years in Paris following his €180m move from AS Monaco in 2017. Nobody can doubt his ongoing commitment to PSG, though, and his goal might yet prove enough to send his current club into the Champions League quarterfinals at the expense of the one he is expected to be at next season.
“No, I’m always ready to play, to help my team,” Mbappe said after the game when asked if he had extra motivation for this tie. “People talked about me for this game, it’s normal, but I’m focused, I’m happy to be a Paris player, and I give 100% for the club.”
Mbappe’s winner was symbolic, given the opponents and his status as PSG’s young star, but Neymar’s involvement in the goal was not without significance either. The Brazil forward, a 73rd-minute substitute for Angel Di Maria, was making his first appearance since suffering an ankle injury in November, and his contribution at key moments in the biggest games has often been questioned since his arrival from Barcelona five years ago.
On this occasion, though, he combined the spectacular with the effective, and his audacious pass to Mbappe was the kind that less able players wouldn’t attempt — if they had even thought of it in the first place. It was for moments like that, and nights like this, that PSG’s Qatari owners have spent so much money attempting to build a Champions League-winning team in the one of the world’s most iconic cities, but the wait continues. They have managed just one appearance in the final — against Bayern Munich in 2020, which they lost — to show for it all.
So can PSG finally win the competition this season? They must first overcome Madrid in next month’s return leg, and that won’t be straightforward, with the 13-time European champions certain to be more adventurous on home turf.
Mbappe’s goal gives PSG a crucial edge, but on the evidence of this game, both PSG and Real will find it difficult to see off Bayern and the Premier League heavyweights of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea — they would both gladly face Manchester United — because of their respective shortcomings in midfield.
With Mbappe, Neymar and Messi in attack, as well as an impressive defence marshalled by Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe, PSG are strong in key areas, but their midfield lacks drive and power. They can retain possession, and Marco Verratti is capable of hurting any opponent, but the strongest teams in the Champions League dominate games from the centre of the pitch with pace and power, and PSG would struggle over two legs against those sides.
The same applies to Madrid.
Nobody can question the quality of their midfield three of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, but when the latter celebrates his 30th birthday next week, the combined age of a trio that started the 2016 Champions League final will be 98. No amount of experience will be enough to help them contain the marauding midfields of City, Liverpool and Bayern.
Where PSG can be too passive in midfield with endless sideways passes, Real lack a driving force. For both sides, they are shortcomings that will be exposed by stronger opponents.
But for PSG at least, they have Mbappe, and no team in the world would have been able to prevent his 94th-minute winner. As long as the Parisians have their hometown hero, they have a chance of beating whomever they face.